Could Red Sox still sign free agent closer Craig Kimbrel?

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 15: Closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates after the final out against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 15, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Red Sox defeated the Indians 3-2. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 15: Closing pitcher Craig Kimbrel #46 of the Boston Red Sox celebrates after the final out against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on August 15, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Red Sox defeated the Indians 3-2. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images) /

We can’t completely rule out the possibility that free agent closer Craig Kimbrel could return to the Boston Red Sox next season.

From the moment the season came to an end, fans seemed resigned to the belief that Craig Kimbrel would be leaving the Boston Red Sox in free agency. The Winter Meetings have come and gone with the fire-breathing closer still available on the market, leaving open the possibility – however slim – that he’ll stay in Boston.

The notion almost seems absurd based on the mammoth contract Kimbrel is rumored to be asking for. Six years for at least $100 million is apparently his goal. That’s too rich for a franchise that already carries the highest payroll in baseball. If that’s what it will take, thanks for a few good years and your role in winning a World Series. Good luck with your next club.

What if it doesn’t actually take that much? There’s a plausible scenario in which Kimbrel finds a frigid free agent market void of the type of offer he seeks. The market won’t be as stagnant as last winter but most teams that hoarded payroll space for this offseason did so with their eyes on the big prizes, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Teams aren’t carving out room in their budget for a record contract for a reliever who turns 31 next season.

The contract Kimbrel expects to land would require several teams bidding against each other to drive up the price. His problem is that he may find a lack of suitors. Only teams that expect to contend in the near future would shell out that much money for a closer and not many contenders currently have an opening for that role.

The New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Houston Astros, Oakland A’s, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, and Washington Nationals have established closers.

The Chicago Cubs have a bit of uncertainty regarding the health of Brandon Morrow but not enough so to pay up for another closer when they have other capable arms in their bullpen. The Cleveland Indians may lose two key relievers to free agency in Andrew Miller and Cody Allen but they should be content with mid-season acquisition Brad Hand as their closer.

Who else does that leave among potential contenders?

Atlanta, where Kimbrel began his career, may seek a bullpen upgrade but it doesn’t seem to be a top priority for them. St. Louis has more of a need and their trade for Paul Goldschmidt signals they are all in to win this year. It’s unclear if they can afford Kimbrel’s asking price if they intend to reward Goldschmidt with a mega-contract of his own next year and it makes little sense to invest long-term in a closer if they plan to let Goldy go after one season. Count these teams among the interested parties but only if the price comes down to a more reasonable level.

Philadelphia desperately wants to join the contender category and hasn’t been shy about their willingness to spend money. They also need a closer. This seemingly lines up for Kimbrel to be a fit for the Phillies yet even they have shown no inclination that they’re willing to pay him what he wants. If a team with money to burn won’t meet Kimbrel’s demands, it’s hard to see any club splurging that much on the veteran closer.

In addition to the lack of suitors, there’s an abundance of relievers on the market competing with Kimbrel for a job. Zach Britton, David Robertson, Kelvin Herrera, and Adam Ottavino are all viable alternatives. None of them are as dominant as Kimbrel yet they will all cost significantly less, providing an option that can get the job done sufficiently at a much better value.

The Red Sox are rumored to have various levels of interest in each of those cost-effective replacements for Kimbrel. They could sign any one of them but they haven’t yet and the longer they wait, the greater the risk that another team will scoop them up.

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When the game of musical chairs ends with each of these other relievers finding a home, Kimbrel may find the Red Sox are the only remaining seat. This would put Kimbrel in a similar position to the one J.D. Martinez was in last winter, demanding a huge contract when there is only one suitor that is unwilling to bid against themselves.

Boston still has future payroll concerns to be wary of and there’s always risk in multi-year deals for relievers. However, it’s hard to imagine the reigning champions being content entering next season with Matt Barnes as their closer. They need an upgrade, even if it’s a short-term one until one of their enticing prospects is ready for the big leagues.

The Red Sox will undoubtedly be paying deep into the luxury tax next year no matter who they sign to be their closer, so the risk of paying Kimbrel is about the seasons beyond 2019. They could always trade Kimbrel mid-way through the deal to alleviate those concerns, so long as he doesn’t suffer injury or decline that crushes his value in the meantime. If he’s still pitching at an elite level, the return should be better than the draft pick they’ll get if Kimbrel signs with another club.

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Kimbrel would have to be willing to sacrifice a significant amount of what he expected while the Red Sox may still end up paying more than they would have liked. It would take compromise from both sides yet there’s a clear path for Kimbrel to return if neither side finds what they were looking for elsewhere.